Andrew Harrison is in a good place. Finally.

The Casa participant and popular host of Andy’s Big Brekky at community radio 8CCC, is about to get paid for what he loves doing.

In a first-time collaboration between 8CCC and five other organisations, Andrew, who has a mild intellectual disability, will realise a long-cherished goal.

“I’ve been a volunteer for a long time. Now I’m finally going to get paid for working for at 8CCC, I’m going to become a fully paid broadcaster,” he says.

Since joining 8CCC as a volunteer broadcaster four years ago, Andrew’s quirky, passionate style has attracted a growing audience in Central Australia and beyond.

With the help of Casa support worker Mark Bensted, who is also his on-air producer, Andrew has interviewed stars including Russell Morris, Kate Ceberano, Robert de Castella, Joe Camilleri, Barry Michaels and Justis Huni on the daily breakfast show.

Behind the mike he deftly juggles chat, interviews and music punctuated by outbursts of exuberance or strong opinion, often on social issues, earning him the tags ‘progressive shock jock’ and ‘the people’s voice’.

It makes for dynamic, entertaining radio.

His larrikin, ‘shoot from the lip’ approach can be startling but has endeared him to many who see his talent for radio and passion for social justice.

Andrew admits he has unwittingly stepped on toes, recalling how he once upset the former Alice Springs mayor in an interview.

“I said something I shouldn’t have done and he stormed out and I’ve gone ‘uh-oh, maybe I shouldn’t have said what I said,’ Andrew says.

Such reflective insight into himself is new and valuable for Andrew, having been in a more ‘protected’ disability environment previously.

Most people are understanding, says 8CCC station manager, Benjamin Erin.

“It’s a very dynamic space, the interview, to learn social cues and all that kind of stuff,” he says.

“He is a passionate voice, with a passionate energy level. Some people have trouble handling that.

“It’s dynamic learning, which is happening as it goes, but that’s how everyone else learns, and if people are protected from that, you don’t get to learn.”

Life is better for Andrew these days, but it was not always so.

Andrew had a tough upbringing, made more challenging by his intellectual impairment.

For years as an adult he shared a house with others with a disability who had high, complex needs, which did not fit well with Andrew’s low-needs disability.

One day, one of the people he lived with died suddenly in front of him. “That just broke me”, Andrew says. A couple of weeks later, Andrew was a passenger in a van involved in a traumatic accident.

He was also frustrated with his day-to-day life, which revolved around day activities and refurbishing aeroplane headsets.

He took pride in his work – his work team won Qantas’s Headset Refurbishers of the Year in 2011 – but he needed more out of life.

The team at Bindi recognised Andrew’s need and talent and introduced him to 8CCC Community Radio, where Andrew first started as a host of Local Connections, a local music show on Thursday afternoons.

But changes to funding with the NDIS roll-out meant Bindi was no longer able to support Andrew in accessing 8CCC. They arranged for Casa to take this on.

When Mark, a former teacher and champion boxer, met Andrew they clicked.

Mark saw how frustrated Andrew was and took action to support his ambitions.

“When I first started working with him, he said to me ‘Mark, just give me something to do. I want something to do.’ And from that point on I made phone calls and got Max Employment involved.

“As soon as I met Benjamin, everything’s evolved from there.”

Mark had only just started in his job as a disability support worker for Casa Services when he ran into Benjamin from 8CCC by chance. Andrew’s two days a week volunteer gig at 8CCC – Andy’s Big Brekky  – sprang from that meeting, and has grown to five days a week.

Benjamin says Mark’s arrival in Andrew’s life has been invaluable – in seeing the potential that broadcasting had for Andrew, and then backing him.

Andrew now has his own supported disability house with Casa and his life has turned a corner.

His broadcasting work has been recognized in a number of awards including the Michele Castagna Medal, for giving a voice and a platform for people with a disability, and he’s on a shortlist to be a consumer adviser on disability and community broadcasting.

Andrew’s also got a knack for photography: he held a photography exhibition as part of the Certificate IV in Screen and Media course he is studying at Charles Darwin University. The opening was attended by all the local politicians, and most of his prints “sold like hotcakes,” Benjamin says.

Andrew’s employment contract with 8CCC begins soon, after consultation with Max Employment, the Mental Health Association of Central Australia, the NT Public Guardian, Trustee and Casa Services.

Mark has seen a big shift in Andrew, especially this year. Much change has been driven by his own motivation to be independent and to improve himself, says Mark.

But the new support structure centred on 8CCC with Mark and NDIS worker Adam Gooderham, has clearly been beneficial. It’s a team approach.

“I can just see so much improvement in him,” Mark says.

“And that’s the key: if people want to improve themselves with the support of others, it can happen.” 

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